How to Use a VPN to Secure Your Privacy Online

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The internet has situated itself in the middle of virtually every aspect of today’s living and is instrumental in allowing us to get more done, in a more efficient, and enjoyable, than any other time in human history. A downside exists, however, and serves as one of the most critical concerns of modern times: online privacy and safety.

While a wide range of solutions exist for this area of concern, one of the best tools to add to your arsenal is the VPN. A VPN, which stands for Virtual Private Network, encrypts and anonymizes transferred data, so you can surf the web and transfer files in the utmost of privacy and safety.

1 What Is a VPN?

A VPN is a network of one or more servers located around the country or the world. The server you use acts as a “middle man” between the websites you want to visit, and the services you want to connect to online. Instead of your ISP directing you to websites you want to visit directly, you are routed and connected to the VPN server.

When you make a request, such as typing in a web address, it will go to the VPN server, setting up what is commonly referred to as a “VPN tunnel.” The VPN server then connects to the target website, and retrieves and temporarily stores the needed data. The server transfers this information back to you, encrypted, for display or function on your device.

2 Why You Should Use a VPN

There are quite a few different scenarios that can benefit from the use of a VPN. While VPNs used to be primarily associated with illegally downloading music and video files, they have become much more mainstream now that circumstances make them needed.

A VPN secures the integrity and safety of your data by encrypting it

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to keep your online actions private, even if they are completely legal and ethical. Acting as that middle man, the VPN allows you to retain the privacy you enjoy in most other areas of life. Any service or site you connect to through a VPN can only see the server used by the VPN, with you safely anonymized in the background. Your ISP (Internet Service Provider), and potentially government agencies, are also barred from eavesdropping or recording any of your online activity. They can see that you are connected to the VPN server, but that is about it.

A VPN also secures the integrity and safety of your data by encrypting it. Any party looking to intercept and steal potentially valuable information and files will be unable to actually read and translate it due to strong encryption.

This is especially important when using an unsecured, public network, such as WiFi in a restaurant or airport. Hackers can have a field day with unencrypted and visible connections, and can do untold damage by acquiring important things like passwords and personal information.

While traveling to other countries may be an extremely enjoyable experience, it can play havoc with your ability to access many websites. Countries, such as China, have whole swaths of popular websites banned from access, enforced by The Great Firewall of China. A VPN becomes a lifesaver in this type of situation, and is able to deftly slide you past this obstacle, and to the websites you need, with the government none the wiser.

Another difficulty that can arise from traveling is attempting to access sites and services that are “region locked.” A region lock is a restriction placed on a website or service, which makes it only accessible from certain areas or countries. A VPN is handy at overcoming this obstacle by offering a server located in an area where the service or site is available. You dial into this server, which then connects to the destination you want, without showing that you are in a prohibited area.

3 What to Look For in a VPN

As with virtually every other commercial product or service in existence, not all VPNs are equal. There are key things to look for when selecting which VPN you will use. Remember, this is your online privacy, so going the extra mile during selection is always time well spent.

Given how important your online security and privacy is, dependability is arguably the most important thing to consider first when choosing a VPN. A VPN is only helpful if it is actually connected, and a drop in service can leave you exposed. Check ratings, feedback, and even awards won to ensure that the one you choose will not fail you.

Speed is also important, considering few things are more frustrating than a slow internet connection. The travel to and from the VPN server, as well as encrypting and decrypting the data, can slow things down, potentially quite a bit.  Look to see if the VPN has servers located near you, and in multiple areas of the country or world. If you hook up to one server that seems to be overloaded with traffic, you can simply switch to a different server for better performance. If speed is important to you check out our comparison charts to find the fastest VPN for you.

Speed is also important, considering few things are more frustrating than a slow internet connection

Also, make sure that the VPN service you select does not keep logs or records of your online activity. Because you are accessing everything through their servers, they know exactly everything that you want to keep from other outside parties. If that information is recorded and stored, it could potentially be hacked and acquired by nefarious third parties.

Extras, like a kill switch, or free cloud storage, may also be things you want to keep an eye out for. As always, make sure the support you can receive is equal to what you will likely need at your personal level of technical expertise and understanding. If you will be traveling to foreign lands that have different laws than the USA has, such as China, be sure your service provider is up to the task.

4 Paid vs Free

Given how low the costs are for a paid VPN, and the potential shortcomings of free ones, it is usually wise to select the former for virtually all online activities. Most free VPNs offer only one type of connection, such as PPTP (Point to Point Tunneling Protocol), which can be notoriously unsecure. Paid services usually offer more connection options, such as OpenVPN or L2TP (Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol), which are much safer to use. Paid VPNs also usually use 256-bit encryption, while freebies usually use 128-bit.

Speed is another important difference between paid and free. Many free services use only one server, with everyone connecting to it competing for its resources. The specs of the server itself may be less powerful than what you find with paid counterparts. In addition, they may impose a cap on how much data you can transfer.

Given that free services have to pay the bills somehow, you will likely run into annoying ads if you use them. Not only are these a blight on any computer experience, they can lead to potentially-unsafe websites.

If you want to enjoy the peace of mind that comes from knowing your online activities are safe and private, a VPN is the most cost efficient, and effective, solution available to the average consumer. Remember, your protection is only as good as the service providing it, so be sure to do all your homework before that first connection.